The 1918 General Election


Welcome to the Irish Revolution! Sinn Fein smashed the opposition to take most of the seats in the 1918 general election. How did this happen? so today we’re gonna look at four distinct things: number one – Thomas Ashe and the hunger strikers; number two the Conscription crisis, which we spoke about in the previous episode; number three the German plot which we very briefly touched on in the last one; and finally the election itself, we’re gonna look at some of the funny things and the unusual things that came up during the election. Thomas Ashe – now I really should have mentioned the significance of the death of Thomas Ashe which happened on the 25th September 1917. I left him out the last time, I kind of wanted to deal with the hunger strike on its own, how significant it was, how it became so significant in years later and how the hunger strike became such a useful weapon for the Republicans in years to come. Ashe had been one of the more prominent leaders of the rising in North County Dublin and had won a famous victory at Ashbourne. He’d been arrested and rounded up during the initial imprisonments and had organized prisoner strikes. He and his comrades were demanding to be recognized as political prisoners. Now those of you who know a bit about the troubles in Northern Ireland can see some of the parallels there – hunger strikes have a long pedigree in Ireland Re-arrested for giving a seditious speech in Balinalee, Co. Longford on the 25th of July 1917 he began a hunger strike. Initially the authorities didn’t understand the significance of what had begun to happen in Mountjoy Jail. Ashe died suddenly after four days of poorly performed force feeding. His funeral became a major propaganda event for the Republicans and galvanized support from among the population at large. As I said in the previous episode, there is nothing the Irish like more than a good martyr story. What stands out for me and what’s kind of interesting for me – contrast O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral which happened in 1915 and Thomas Ashe’s funeral. Now at O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral the oration was given by Padraig Pearse. Pearse spoke eloquently on that day, he said, ‘o the fools the fools the fools…’ You know that famous speech? and it’s lived on in Irish people’s subconscious I think, it forms part of that narrative of the run-up to the rising you know? Now Michael Collins, who wouldn’t have been well-known at this stage he was just beginning to make a name for himself among the the militant factions of the Sinn Fein movement, of the volunteer movement Michael Collins gave the oration for Thomas Ashe and where Pearse used his oratory and his high words, Collins spoke only two sentences, which in the words of the historian Charles Townsend were “charged with controlled violence” he said, Collins, Now, the difference in my opinion is stark. Collins was a practical man, ready to get into action there would be no more rushes to the barricades. The men would fight a practical, cold and disciplined fight against the British Empire even if they didn’t realize this at the time. The likes of Collins, and there were others in the volunteer movement who were pushing things this way, to a more militant for a militant way you know? The Conscription crisis! I want to talk a bit more about this. Now, in the last episode I said it was instrumental in winning support for the Sinn Fein party, as the British historian AJP Taylor said the Conscription crisis was how the British finally lost the Irish. Sinn Fein found themselves in league with the Catholic Church, which was very important. Sinn Fein were also on the side of the constitutionalist IPP but they came off bad as Sinn Fein were seen as more muscular and many of their candidates ended up in prison which made the IPP look weak or whatever. Nationalist IPP MPs found themselves in a tough spot. Redmond, of course, supported the war in the beginning, he urged Irishmen to enlist and that was used against him, that was used against the IPP, a lot, but they found themselves in a very tough spot because they weren’t against the war. Sinn Fein were clearly against the war, the IPP well they were for the war they just weren’t for conscription. Now I’m not sure if the Irish people could understand that distinction you know apparently they did and they didn’t vote for them didn’t they?! in the end. William O’Brien, a veteran IPP MP declared that it proved the final bankruptcy of parliamentary methods. He went on to say “like every Irish crisis in the previous 50 years it would be resolved in Ireland” The writing was on the wall for the IPP I’ll not talk any more about this, look at the previous episode for more details about the Conscription crisis, I just wanted to point out that it’s integral to this story today about the the election, the 1918 election. Now the German Plot We kind of skipped over this but it’s important. The British claimed there were plans afoot for a second rising and so arrested many prominent Sinn Feiners Does that sound like an absurd idea? no it does not! they were just a few years after a rising in Dublin, many of the lads in Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers were not exactly peaceniks, you know? they weren’t peace guys Plans had been made with the Germans before the rising that would have seen Germans come over to the west of Ireland and form a front there, so it’s nothing inherently absurd, that the British would suspect Sinn Fein and the volunteers and the Irish rebels of a planning another rebel Rising, there’s no reason why that on its own is absurd, but what became absurd was there was no real evidence ever presented for this and people could see through it and the Sinn Feiners and the volunteers knew there was no evidence for it so it just became a farce, it just became a farce. While there was a national contest between the Constitutionalist IPP and the militant now Republican Sinn Fein party there was also a contest inside the Sinn Fein party between the political and military wing which I touched a bit a bit earlier the German plot arrests tilted the balance from the political wing to the militarists. Although aware of the impending arrests the Sinn Fein leadership decided not to go into hiding, thus understanding the propaganda and political usefulness of that decision. Interestingly, Michael Collins and Harry Boland decided to go into hiding and they made good use of that time. Preparations were made, again whether they realized it or not this is what was happening. Preparations were made for the upcoming War of Independence, plans were made for volunteers who would have to go on the run Safe houses were identified, dugouts were constructed in the countryside. The police reported a 23% increase in Sinn Fein membership between March and May 1918. There is an even greater influx to the volunteers as young man eager to avoid conscription decided the volunteers were the way to go and as you can see from volunteer witness statements many of these newcomers were ‘sunshine fans’ I think you call them in football-only out when the sun was good. A lot of them left once the immediate threat of conscription passed and the old timers in the volunteers, the old guard, the hardcore (even though they’re young man but you know what I mean) were suspicious of these guys. And to be honest they were right to be suspicious because a lot of them just left once the threat of conscription passed and in general volunteer activity increased in this period, night-time drilling became more frequent, raids for arms and ammunition more commonplace. interesting little sidenote – Cathal Brugha, a leading Sinn Feiner and volunteer devised a plot to assassinate the British Cabinet if conscription were to be introduced. Although there was some resistance to this idea, a team had been put together and were sent to London to make preparations. Since conscription was never passed or happened [then it didn’t go through] but can you imagine the hell that would have been unleashed if they’d went ahead with that, you know? the Conscription Crisis and the aftermath of the German plot became a crisis for the constitutionalist IPP. Their parliamentary methods were discredited and their early support for the war in 1914 came back to haunt them. Although they were opposed to conscription, Redmond’s earlier call for Irish participation in the war was used against the IPP and to great effect. The German plot, by side lining the political arm of the republican movement gave strength to the militarists and underlay the preparations for the guerrilla war which would break out in 1919. Now let’s have a look at the election itself. The 1918 general election was the first in 8 years due to the war, most Irish people having studied this in school are quite familiar with the election in Ireland (as if that’s the only thing of interest) but let’s have a look at the election in the UK and Ireland, how it affected both places. So first of all, the electorate had changed enormously since the previous election. The representation of the People Act, 1918, extended the franchise to almost all men over 21 and women over 30 who were householders. The Irish electorate increased from around 700,000 to almost 2 million. Women made up 36% of the new electorate. Interestingly the first woman elected to the House of Commons was that great Irish rebel Constance Markievicz, she didn’t actually take up her seat because Sinn Fein had an abstentionist policy which they still do in London, by the way. So thats an interesting pub quiz fact – who was the first woman elected to the House of Commons in the UK? and that woman was an Irish woman, Constance Markievicz, an Irish woman with a funny Polish name. In Britain there was no radical change to socialism or whatever as some conservatives had worried regarding the extension of the franchise. If anything, the electorate were more conservative than ever. They return Lloyd George’s government but with the Liberals as a junior partner. The Conservatives, always hardline on Ireland, were to form the majority of the new governing coalition. This was to prove very impactful on Ireland and Lloyd George was juggling a lot of things. The Conservatives were the dominant party, him [George] as the head of the coalition liberals were the minority party, he was the prime minister, so. Ireland was very much a secondary issue in the British election but there was unanimity: Sinn Fein romped home winning 73 seats to the Unionist 26 and the IPP six. The IPP, in the words of the historian Pauric Travers, from whom I’ve stolen rather indiscriminately today The IPP were old and stale and found it hard to recruit younger candidates. More than 30 outgoing IPP MPs did not seek reelection and some only stood after a great deal of persuasion from the new leader, John Dillon. The only constituencies where an IPP candidate defeated a Sinn Feiner was in Waterford where Captain William Redmond held on to the Redmondite stronghold down there, and in West Belfast where the prominent IPP politician Joe Devlin would go on to lead his own little political force up there in the northern part of Ireland. Not quite Northern Ireland at this stage. There were obviously other contests, the IPP won more than two seats! but there were local pacts to make sure that the nationalist vote wasn’t split, you know, that the vote wouldn’t be split in the northern part of Ireland where the vote was contested between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists. In the province of Ulster the unionist won 58 percent of the votes and 23 out of 37 seats. Sinn Fein and the IPP won five each. There had been an election pact between Sinn Fein and the IPP prior to the election in order to maximise the anti unionist vote and so not allow unionists to get in by splitting the Green vote. In Down East an IPP candidate refused to step aside and the seat was duly won by a unionist. Interestingly Sinn Fein were weakest in Ulster and made fewer inroads there. Why? perhaps because the seats traditionally had been contested so the IPP had a ground game and experience of fighting elections. The organisation at the ground level was much stronger and perhaps there was more tribal loyalty than in the rest of Ireland. Now, the nature of the Sinn Fein mandate in this election has been contested in subsequent years. After all, Sinn Fein didn’t get more than 50% of the vote on the island. In the end the percentage was 46.9%. The first past the post electoral system somewhat flattered them. The IPP with 22% of the vote had just six seats, they hadn’t contested 25 seats, mainly in Munster presumably they are weakest here so if the elections had been contested the Sinn Fein vote might well have reached 60 percent nationwide… well thats… I’m robbing that figure from Joseph Lee anyway, he threw that out, 60 percent, hypothetical obviously. The Unionist with around 25 percent of the vote won 26 seats but so goes the first-past-the-post system. It’s just not fair, it’s not a good system. They use it but they still use it in Britain I don’t know why, it’s useless! it suits the big parties, that’s it. But anyways thats just one of those things. Like our current system in Ireland, the proportional representation system, like it throughs out weird weirdness as well but I think it’s fair, this first-past-the-post system I don’t like it. The Labour Party had withdrawn from the campaign allowing voters a clean choice – ‘Ireland, a nation or a province?’ was the message put to the electorate. The manifesto of the Sinn Fein party proclaimed the Irish Republic, promised to boycott the Westminster Parliament, establish a Constituent Assembly, would appeal to the post-war peace conference to represent Ireland’s nationhood, it also “…any and all means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise” But Sinn Fein were not exactly blatant about this either. The historian Joseph Lee summed it up rather well I think when he wrote De Valera, addressing a crowd in Clare said Sinn Fein promised to fight for nationhood at the post-war peace conference. If they didn’t succeed, which had a very high probability, what was the alternative? The alternative, as it was to turn out, was war. thanks for watching! alright guys thank you so much for watching… please subscribe and like the video if you liked it and again, any comments you have make’em. Make lots of comments, let me know what you think. If you don’t like it then don’t comment!! No, comment, whatever let me know let me know what you think. Let me know again about the audio because I’m just a total amateur, I don’t really know what I’m doing here. Alright hopefully see you in a few weeks! okay everybody thanks so much!




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